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Executive Orders on Travel and Immigration Create a Far-from-Ordinary Semester in Michigan Law's Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse

By Julie Aust, Jamie Kessler, and Virginia Weeks
March 16, 2017

President Donald J. Trump's second travel ban for nationals from a group of predominantly Muslim countries was scheduled to take effect on March 16, 2017—until it was enjoined the day before by the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, one of the dozens of courts examining its legality. Since the first travel-related executive order went into effect in late January, students working with Michigan Law's Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse have been making documents and daily updates in the correlating cases available to lawyers, journalists, and the public. "The Clearinghouse is the only source on the web providing such timely, comprehensive updates on these various challenges to the EOs," says the Clearinghouse's founder and director, Margo Schlanger, who also is the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law.

Maintained by a team of law students and undergraduates under Schlanger's direction, the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse has made information and documents from large-scale civil rights cases nationwide accessible to advocates, policymakers, and researchers for nearly a decade. It was an obvious home for information about the executive order litigation—if only students could keep it current, across the dozens of cases.

Schlanger reached out to the students working on the Clearinghouse—who had signed up for a lower-key, non-time-pressured project writing descriptions and gathering information about civil rights cases—to see if they wanted to take on this higher-profile and more intense task. A team of four Michigan Law students and four undergraduates responded immediately, and the students have been working daily to make sure the site stays completely up to date, responsive to the intense public interest. Law students Julie Aust, Jamie Kessler, Ava Morgenstern, and Virginia Weeks are tracking all legal challenges to three immigration-related executive orders. Undergraduates Allison Blair, Tamra Koza, David Margulis, and Lauren Shepard support them.

The executive order project began on January 27, 2017, when President Trump released an executive order titled "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States." The order completely barred admission into the United States of all nationals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. It also suspended the refugee program for 120 days. Litigation accusing the president of implementing a discriminatory and unconstitutional "Muslim ban" ensued immediately, and many thousands of people wanted to follow that litigation in detail.

Regardless of their political leanings, the Clearinghouse work gives Michigan students an exciting view into the mechanics of high-stakes civil litigation, an opportunity to learn about immigration law, and the chance to make an immediate impact by assisting civil rights lawyers and organizations across the country. "This has been one of the best decisions I made in law school. The EO project already has helped prepare me for immigration practice and litigation," said Morgenstern, a 2L. It also brings the classroom and textbooks to life, said Weeks, who is a 1L. "Law school classes create a layer of abstraction between the student and the world. This project allows us to participate in the actual process of defining what sort of national community we become through our laws."

For some of the law students, this project is an extension of their past experiences. "Before coming to law school, I worked with refugees, and I felt a kind of despair after the first Trump executive order was released," said Kessler, a 1L. "Through my work with the Clearinghouse, I feel like I get to support some of the incredible litigation that is taking place to challenge the order." Aust, a 2L whose prior experience as an immigration paralegal initially brought her to the project, said, "I am interested in impact litigation as a potential career, and it's great to know that we're providing a valuable common resource to challengers around the country."

The project enables attorneys working on the challenges to have immediate access to case documents as they craft their own filings, and to help journalists and the public stay informed. The Clearinghouse immediately became the leading source on the web for information on the cases; it's being used by thousands of visitors to the website. Indeed, Morgenstern noted, "multiple immigration attorneys have told me how useful our site has been to them, especially their front-line teams based at airports."

The team covers individual, organization, and state claims challenging the immigration orders, as well as related Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Individual plaintiffs in the immigration cases are directly affected by the travel ban, while organizations and states assert detrimental economic impact and that they are being deprived of vital contributors to their functions. Plaintiffs in the FOIA cases are news and advocacy organizations seeking information about the development and implementation of the executive orders. The team currently is covering 28 live cases, monitoring potential additional cases, and searching for new cases daily. For each one, law students review the case docket, read all relevant documents, and maintain an up-to-date summary for each case online, and undergraduates retrieve and post the documents.

Schlanger pointed out that as the litigation heats up, her team will be ready. "Thanks to this team of terrific students, clearinghouse.net will remain the go-to site for up-to-date reliable information and documents as the challenges to the latest EO move forward."

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